Sunday, October 28, 2007

Al's Bar - Guest review

Cheap Eats Along Limestone in Lexington, KY

by Lisa Samson author of Hollywood Nobody

Now, I admit, north Lexington isn't what anybody would call a posh section of town. You'll find small grocery stores more interested in selling lottery tickets and Doritos than fresh vegetables. In fact, for his rural sociology class at University of Kentucky, Will and some classmates conducted a food access study of the area. Not one fresh vegetable could be found in these stores. Not a single apple. Not an orange. The closest you could get was a bag of potatoes. And those were rare. You can get checks cashed as well.

Al's Bar and Grlll sits at the corner of Fifth and Limestone amid forlorn surroundings: a pool hall, a hot wings joint and a barber shop so old and decrepit it's a wonder anybody risks life and limb for a haircut. Al's is pretty forlorn itself, to be honest. The first time I entered Al's I did so because I heard it was for sale. Immediately, I began to dream. Homemade soups each day, my friend Claudia and I talking with the neighbors as we served up steaming cups of coffee and homemade food. The price was right at $199,000.00 certainly, but my life was already filled.

But somebody bought Al's. A surprise to us all because it sat with that For Sale sign on it for close to a year. The owners of Stella's Deli, another downtown establishment, but down near Second Street, and that makes all the difference in the world if you know Lexington, bought Al's and not long after a sign hung across the brick facade.

Lunch Special: Burger, Fries and a Draft Beer, $5.00.

Well, well! The owners are people committed to using as much local foods as possible, especially grass fed, organic beef.

Recently, I went with two friends to sample the special. The waiter, who I suspect is one of the owners, came and took our order. Lea ordered a Diet Coke, Amy a water, and yes, I got the beer. Budweiser on tap. Oh well, it was almost a hundred degrees that day, and they served it in a mug frosted a quarter inch thick. Baby, it was the best Bud I'd ever had!

Our burger came with a choice of fries or sweet potato fries. We all ordered the sweet potato fries. Having chatted for less than ten minutes, we soon lifted those organic burgers to our mouths. They weren't huge affairs, just quarter pound, hand formed patties. But the meat was moist and tasty and still piping hot. The grilled buns added a pleasant, crispy texture along with lettuce and a slice of ripe tomato. It was nothing less than what I expected from the owners of Stella's.

But the most pleasant of surprises came with the sweet potato fries. Skins still clinging to the perfectly fried, bright orange meat, seasoned with a blend I didn't recognize from the grocery store, I bit into a little bit of heaven. All three of us agreed, these were the best sweet potato fries we'd ever eaten. If you'd like to order them a la carte, the price is right as well at $1.50 a serving. I swear I'm going to go back, get a double order and call it a meal.

As an author, I know you can't tell a book by its cover. As someone who loves local dives, I know you can't always tell what kind of food you're going to get in a restaurant that may not look so tony on the outside. Or the inside for that matter.

If you have trouble looking beyond atmosphere, Al's may not be the place for you. A set of green naughahyde booths line the left side of the joint, just across from the bar where colorful, city locals gather. A pool table haunts one of the back rooms, the bulk of the establishment rarely used during the daylight hours. On the way out, we had a lovely conversation with the woman who works in the lunchroom at the local elementary school. She said, "Have a good day, baby," to me on the way out.

That was even nicer than those fries!

Down Fifth you'll find Stella Mae's SRO, quite possibly the smallest sit-down restaurant you'll ever go to. Wait until you hear about Stella Mae's apple cobbler. But that's for another day.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Great Vietnamese food any day but Tuesday

Where: 8557 Research Boulevard Ste 146, Austin, TX, 78758
Phone: 512-339-7860
Hours: Wed-Mon 10a-10p

As you gentle readers know from a previous installment, we were thwarted in our first attempt to infest the Sunflower when The Kiwi Doglover failed to mention that they were closed on Tuesday. I rectified the situation by rescheduling my weekly foray into civilization to land on a Wednesday and we descended on the Sunflower with a keen sense of expectation.

The first thing to strike us upon entry was the surprising number of diners already digging in with gusto at such an early hour. Here was a whole crowd of rush hour daters! We sent the server off immediately for a brace of fresh spring rolls (The Woman prefers fried, but I rule with an Iron Fist!) and then spent the next half-hour digesting the menu. Well, maybe not an actual half hour, but near enough. Sort of. You get the idea. There's lots on there and it all sounds good.

On the advice of The Kiwi Doglover, we ordered the Calamari Salad (strips of tender calamari tossed in a cabbage salad with fresh mint leaves, scallions and a tangy dressing) and the Seafood Clay Pot (lots of good stuff which I can't describe because it's not listed on the takeout menu, served in a clay pot). The Woman saw another table devouring something which our server said was the Crispy Tamarind Halibut (fried halibut cubes in a tempura batter, drizzled with tangy tamarind sauce, pictured here in a photo I stole from a newspaper review), but ruling with the Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove, I directed her attention to the (non-fried) Sunflower Special Steamed Sea Bass Fillet (California sea bass steamed with ginger, scallions and topped with a black bean soy sauce), reasoning that if it's their speciality, it's bound to be good. (And who can argue with such flawless reasoning? Don't answer that.)

By the way, did you know that Chilean sea bass isn't really sea bass? It's a very ugly fish discovered 30 years ago, with the unappealing name of the Patagonian toothfish, but nobody would buy it with that name, so they renamed it to improve their marketing. It worked so well that now the fish is in danger of extinction. Really.

The calamari salad was very nice. Tender chunks of squid. Num. The fish was very interesting, flaky white fish and the scallions were the perfect complement to the black bean soy sauce. The clay pot was good, too, with all kinds of things crawling around in side. Well, not really crawling. Floating would be more like it. We toddled out satisfied and walked it off at the Hong Kong Supermarket where The Woman picked up more tea infuser cups for her co-workers. (She really is too nice for this world.)

But one visit wasn't enough. We returned for another pair of fresh spring rolls and the Sunflower Salad (marinated jellyfish, pork and shrimp, tossed with lotus shoots, fresh mint, basil, scallions and cabbage in a tangy vinaigrette). This time I relented and we tried the Crispy Fried Halibut. The spring rolls were tasty and healthy, as usual. The salad was great, although after sampling a small portion The Woman generously suggested I eat the rest. The halibut was good, served on some very fresh, tender lettuce, with red onions and fresh mint and doused with a very sweet sauce. But I'm no fan of fried and there was too much sugar for my taste. The Woman suggested that next time she will ask for the sauce on the side. I suggested that it be on the other side of town at least.

This time we trolled through the neighboring Target to walk it off and discovered a table that almost fit what we've looked through dozens of stores, catalogs and websites to find. It's not exact, but on clearance it was as close as we're likely to find, so we snatched it up and I got the rest of my exercise getting it out of the car.

Which of course has nothing to do with the Sunflower. I have yet to try the kinds of dishes I usually associate with Vietnamese restaurants, like pho and lemongrass chicken. Guess we'll have to go back again. I won't be complaining.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

El Sol y La Luna - Podcast


SpyMan and the Wunderfool hit a SoCo icon for breakfast and lunch. Top notch TexMex with a South Congress twist.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Coco's Cafe

It's bubbleiscous

Location: 8557 Research Blvd # 118, Austin, TX

Location: 1910 Guadalupe St, Austin, TX

On a hot tip from the Kiwi doglover, we directed our rush hour date toward a Vietnamese place off 183, only to discover it is closed on Tuesday. Bummer, since we don't get up into north Austin much at other times. We consoled ourselves with a visit to the Hong Kong Supermarket. There's nothing quite like a stroll through an Asian supermarket. Sometimes you even see a label in English, although sometimes even that doesn't help. I found a gzillion things I'd like to try, but with the pantry already full of things I haven't cooked in months, it would be crazy to buy more. I did get some fried taro sticks for a snack and we picked up some cool tea cups, the kind with a lid and an infuser. [Ours are a very cool blue, but I could only find red on the Internet, so use your imagination.]

We had time on our hands, so we loitered around the strip mall, browsing here and there. We did a speedwalk pass through a furniture store, outrunning the sales guy, and ended up outside a place called Coco's Cafe. The sign in front mentioned some of their awards from the Austin Chronicle:

  • 2006 Readers Other Oriental/Asian
  • 2004 Readers Original Recipe
  • 2004 Readers Chicken Dish
  • 2004 Readers Other Oriental/Asian
  • 2004 Readers Favorites
  • 2003 Readers Favorites
  • 2003 Readers Other Oriental/Asian
  • 2002 Readers Favorites
  • 2001 Readers New Restaurant
  • 2001 Readers Other Restaurant Worth Noting
  • 2001 Readers Other Oriental/Asian
With all those awards, it didn't look like a high-risk option. The clincher was the big sign advertising their bubble drinks.

The Woman has few weak spots. When we moved to Hawaii we went three years without Blue Bell ice cream. Then somebody sent us four half-gallons of Blue Bell. The normally generous-to-a-fault Woman assumed the demeanor of a tigress guarding her cubs. The transformation was astounding. At that point I made a note to self -- never get between The Woman and her Mint Chocolate Chip Blue Bell!

Bubble drinks are another of The Woman's passions. I don't get it, myself. If I get a drink, I don't want lumps in it. Some like lumps, I guess.

At Coco's, you go to the counter, order, get a number, help yourself to the soup and various condiments and grab a table. The menu was full of interesting things. We narrowed it down to Peppercorn Chicken for The Woman and Eel Steak for me. We also wanted to get [insert name of item that really sounded good but I forgot the name of and couldn't look up because they don't have a website here] but they were out, so we opted for the green onion pie.

The soup was egg drop. Milly put cilantro in hers, I put a dark hot sauce in mine and it was spicy enough, even for me. Our green onion pie arrived, which turned out to be a big green onion pancake with a soy chili pepper sauce on the side. It was a nice appetizer, although these things always taste a little under done to me. But that's just me. That's how they're supposed to taste.

The entres arrived. The peppercorn chicken was deep-fried chicken chunks with peppercorn batter, jalapeno garlic mixture on the side with rice and spicy cabbage. The eel steak was a big unagi filet in a bowl of rice with spicy cabbage and a pickled squash slice. It was just like something you would get in Japan for lunch. I got flashbacks from my Asian travels. Both were good. It's not surprising Coco's gets awards. They have good solid food, decent prices, simple but tasteful decor. What's not to like? I'm going to check out the other location first chance I get.